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Culinary Curiosities: Everything Is Better With Butter

I’m in good company with my love of all things butter. Alice Waters, who some refer to as “the Mother of American Food,” says, “Everything tastes better with butter,” and, Julia Child quipped, “With enough butter, anything is good.” I started to think about butter’s central role in my cooking as I reached into my fridge for the familiar box with the Native American maiden. Land O’Lakes, a proud Minnesota-based company behind that iconic image, has played a major role in modern butter manufacture and innovation for nearly a hundred years.

It used to be that butter was made at home, on the farm, primarily by women. Mothers passed down the labor-intensive skill of hand-making butter to their daughters, resulting in a highly individualized product. Everything from the breed of cattle, to the nature of the fields and forage, to the family traditions and tastes varied from farm to farm. It was, as we say today, an artisanal process. But with the rise of industrialization and cooperative creameries, the dairy business moved from farms to factories.

On July 8, 1921, 320 creameries joined forces to form the Minnesota Cooperative Creameries Association. By working together, they aimed to improve the dairy business, especially by creating standards and certification for butter quality. This led to a reliable, uniform product that consumers liked (instead of the varying taste and quality of butter from the farm). The new technology of the centrifugal cream separator, invented in 1878, meant that cream could be quickly separately from milk, speeding up butter manufacture. Instead of waiting for milk to settle, many farms could bring their milk to the creamery, where butter could be made within hours. The cooperative creameries dubbed it “sweet cream” butter because the milk didn’t have any of the ripeness or tangy flavor that came from letting the wild bacteria in milk do its work as the cream slowly separated. Refrigeration and pasteurization technologies were also a boon for dairy makers.

To better brand their product, the cooperative creameries held a contest in 1924 offering $500 in gold to the person who came up with the best name for their “sweet cream” butter. Ida Foss and George Smith both offered up “Land O’Lakes”—a reference to Minnesota’s reputation as the land of 10,000 lakes—a name so catchy that by 1926 the cooperative renamed itself the Land O’Lakes Creameries Inc. A few years later the illustrator Arthur C. Hanson of Brown & Bigelow designed the first version of the headdress-clad maiden who, with a few alterations over the years, continues to smile from the box of butter to this day.

Land O’Lakes had great success with its new take on butter, but the Depression, followed by World War II, saw prices drop as well as shortages and rationing take a toll on sales. During the Depression, the company bought excess butter to keep the industry solvent. Operations were also expanded to include eggs and focused on advertising. In 1937 Land O’Lakes opened a milk drying plant in Luck, Wisconsin, that would prove valuable to the military during World War II since the product required no refrigeration and was easy to transport.

Today butter is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. For years we thought animal fat was “bad” and butter was the enemy. So I am happy to say, “please pass the butter!” 

Facts to Butter You Up

Butter’s debut was on a 4,500-year-old limestone tablet doubling as a recipe card;

The word butter is Greek for “cow cheese;”

Ancient tribes used it as lamp oil and as a skin barrier to the cold;

Butter is still used in religious ceremonies in India and Tibet;

An old English custom is to present newlyweds with a pot of butter, a gift of prosperity and fertility;

Archaeological digs in the Nordic countries’ bogs in the early 1800s unearthed wooden vessels of buried butter, heavily seasoned with garlic and hidden from robbers while it aged.

Source: Dairy Goodness website and webexhibits. org

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